Bernal Institute at University of Limerick set for launch
UL aims to establish itself as a world leader in research and innovation
“Using carbon fibre composites we can achieve rotor diameter sizes of up to 220 metres generating much greater amounts of electricity in the process,” said Professor Paul Weaver as Bernal Chair of Composite Materials, UL.
The new Institute combines the Bernal Project, the Materials and Surface Science Institute and the Stokes Institute into a single entity and is part of the university’s strategic plan “Broadening Horizons” which seeks to establish UL’s reputation as a research-led university which delivers excellent research that makes an impact.
The Bernal Project, named after influential 20th century Irish scientist, John Desmond Bernal, aims to enhance research excellence in the strategically important fields of pharmaceutical science and engineering; energy and sustainable environment; modern and biomedical materials and engineering.
The €52 million project involves the recruitment of 10 world leading professors and a start-up seed fund to support their teaching and research activity in a purpose-built advanced research building on the UL campus.
The Materials and Surface Science Institute (MSSI) has been in existence since 1998 and has built a significant track record in materials and in particular in pharmaceutical, composite and biomedical materials.
The Stokes Institute, established in 2002, has built a reputation as a centre for leading expertise in fluidics with applications in biotechnology, chemical processing and thermal management.
In launching the Bernal Institute, UL aims to establish itself as a world leader in key research areas where it will pioneer innovation, drive change and achieve success that will yield significant benefits for society in the future.
A key aspect of the Bernal Project is the recruitment of world leading researchers as Bernal Chairs across ten key fields.
The latest appointment is that of Professor Paul Weaver as Bernal Chair of Composite Materials. This appointment, which is co-funded by Science Foundation Ireland, is set to position Ireland as a hub for advancing products and services in this critically important sector.
Prof Weaver is a world leader in in the field of structural mechanics for composite materials, in particular the emerging field of morphing composite structures. He has worked on design aspects of composite materials for over 25 years, working with organisations such as NASA, Airbus, GE Aviation and Vestas Wind Systems.
He was attracted to UL and the Bernal Institute due to the university’s track record in the field and the opportunities to carry out pioneering research.
“UL has a strong reputation in the field dating back to the 1990s,” he says.
“I am hoping to take it to another level and put the university on the world stage. The people are fantastic in Ireland; they do things on time and within budget but don’t seem to realise how good they are. I have been really impressed by the senior management at UL. They have a vision of where they are going and the Bernal Institute will take UL to another place on the world league table and will take Ireland there as well.”
He has also been awarded €6.1 million in funding under the Science Foundation Ireland Research Professorship programme to work on the Varicomp project. Varicomp will develop large scale customised engineering structures tailored at each phase of construction to meet specific requirements using additive layer manufacturing techniques.
His work, and that of the research teams he will lead in UL, is of profound importance to the rapidly evolving low carbon global economy.
He points to his work with NASA in this regard where it was found that every 500g in reduced weight in a rocket translated into a saving of $10,000.
“It’s worth an awful lot of money to develop new materials which are stiff, strong and lightweight,” he explains. “The carbon fibre used in tennis racquets and golf clubs was actually developed for the space race.”
He has also worked with Formula One, the aerospace industry and the renewable energy sector. In this latter area the development of new materials could dramatically improve the efficiency of offshore wind farms.
“Wind turbine blades are longer and bigger than the biggest aircraft wing”, he notes. “Using carbon fibre composites we can achieve rotor diameter sizes of up to 220 metres generating much greater amounts of electricity in the process. They will also be able to operate at higher wind speeds.”
There are also some quite amazing developments on the horizon. One of them relates to aircraft wing technology.
“When an aircraft is taking off wing flaps extend to make the wing larger and give more lift, they retract to create a smaller wing when it’s cruising, and when landing the flaps act as air-brakes. This requires heavy hydraulic systems. My new research area is in structures which can be made to morph or change their shapes intelligently. This will allow for the construction of aircraft wings with integral flaps which will be have simpler activation systems and will be lighter and more efficient.”
This may sound like the stuff of science fiction but it is completely in line with the approach Weaver takes to all his projects.
“My approach to science and engineering is that you need to have a vision which could almost be science fiction to give you a goal and then take baby steps towards it which will see you solve lots of practical problems on the way.”